Home-grown: WUR-experts on the new EU soil legislation

July 4, 2023

The soil will likely be legally protected under EU law in the future. WUR researchers wrote a policy discussion document to provide the European Commission with scientific advice. What is their message to Brussels?

The water we drink and the air we breathe are protected. The soil, however, is not legally protected. ‘That is strange’, says Liesje Mommer, a professor of Belowground Ecology and a biodiversity figurehead. ‘After all, soil is the foundation on which all life thrives. The ground beneath our feet helps us grow food, provides clean water and regulates the climate.’ These services are threatened now that the soil is deteriorating on a global scale. Two-thirds of Europe’s soil now suffers this fate.

The European Commission wants this changed in the future. Soon, the soil will be legally protected under the EU Soil Health Law. The Commission presented this law on 5 July, and it is to be discussed in the European Parliament. The details of the proposed law are not yet known, but it will probably state what constitutes healthy soil and how to monitor soil health. Additionally, the proposal contains rules for sustainable soil use and recovery.

Protective shield

The new law is sorely needed, say 17 soil experts of Wageningen University & Research. Healthy soil teems with life, such as plants, fungi and bacteria, and is the foundation on which our ecosystems function. The soil works as a protective shield, or buffer, against nature’s whims. As such, the consequences of soil erosion (through wind and water), drought, floods and landslides are limited if the soil is “alive”. This buffer is even more crucial in times of climate warming.

The soil determines the quality of our food. Crops simply grow better in soil that is in equilibrium with soil life. All of that life functions better without pollution. And that is precisely where the problems arise: agriculture, industry and households across the globe contribute to the spread of pollutants in the soil.

‘Soil pollution can remain in the soil for a very long time and spread over large areas’, says Esmer Jongedijk. She studies the relationship between chemical substances in the soil and food safety at Wageningen Food Safety Research (WFSR). ‘Plants are able to absorb these substances, causing humans to ingest them directly through the plant or indirectly through animals. These substances may have an immediate harmful effect on our health or cause long-term negative effects.’

Learning from the past

The WUR scientists have released a policy discussion document on the importance of a law protecting the soil. They also recommend formulating the law in such a manner that it will work. Associate professor of Environmental Law Edwin Alblas hopes the EU will investigate the effects of previous European laws on the environment and nature, such as the Water Framework Directive and the Habitat Directive. There is room for improvement in the effects these laws have, as it is not always clear what is expected of the member states, and compliance is frequently lacking.

‘The new law must apply strict, binding rules to stop soil pollution’, says Alblas. However, the way to healthy soil may be different in Spain than in Poland. ‘The law should invite national and regional administrations to formulate a tailored plan. These administrations have a bridging role.’ How the soil is monitored and results are recorded, and what solutions are fair and just, may differ per country.

Laying the groundwork

The researchers caution that a tailored approach also harbours the risk that each member state interprets the law in accordance with its own ideas. Scientific substantiation for tailored plans is needed. Hence, the WUR scientists collaborate with other researchers in Europe to detail the EU Soil Health Law for regional differences. Moreover, WUR may play a part in monitoring whether the law is sufficiently effective in improving the health of the soil and ecosystems.

Although the law will take a while to be completed, time is of the essence. Alblas: ‘Many soils are in a deplorable state. We must find a fast and scientifically substantiated way to address this issue. That is the challenge Europe faces.’